Thursday, September 13, 2007

What Can We Learn From Zombies?

When it comes to movies, I've never hidden the fact that I am a horror fan. Throughout my extensive collection of DVD and video, there are many classics within the genre. But until recently I haven't made much of an effort to collect zombie-themed fims. Perhaps that's because I really didn't enjoy George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). For most zombie-lovers, that's a rite of passage. I mostly found the movie boring. The undead generally move so slow that I believe I'd have no problem getting away from them. I didn't care about any of the characters and most of the film was contained to one or two sets. Maybe if I went back and watched it again, I could appreciate whatever others see in it. In the meantime I've started given other entries in this sub-genre a chance.

As soon as I saw the trailer for 28 Days Later (2002), I knew I'd see it someday. Director Danny Boyle had made Trainspotting, so I expected his journey into more classical horror would be stylish and compelling. For some purists 28 Days Later wasn't even a zombie film. Technically it is more accurately characterized as an infectious disease film. Despite the source of the demented mob's behavior, the affected folks sure acted like traditonal zombies. There was (of course) one notable exception- they moved super-fast. Indeed it was their improved locomotor abilities that made the plight of the protagonists almost unbearably horrific. However you characterized those crazed and rampaging hordes, there's no doubt that other filmmakers took note of them. Last year I had a look at the remake of the Dawn of the Dead (2004). Lo and behold, Zack Snyder made one huge deviation from the Romero version... he made the zombies fast.

Regardless of how a particular creator conceives of the physical aspects of monsters, I'm usually more fascinated by other aspects of the stories they inhabit. I suspect that many folks are looking specifically at the special effects, the gore and/or the make-up. For me, there are two aspects of filmmaking that I am particularly interested in when I watch horror films. It's important that the settings are suitably creepy and creatively shot, and there needs to be an intriguing story beneath the spectacle of the horror. Messiah of Evil (1973) is a good example of a film that excels at the first, and adequately meets the second requirement (have a look at a previous blog post wherein I described the film). This is the one that made me reconsider my rejection of the entire subgenre. It is one of those obscure gems that forces you to share it with your friends.

In fact there are many zombie films that people commonly point to when it comes to the evocation of mood. Obviously Romero's works are often cited. But each individual fan will be able to name a few of their lesser-known favorites. Dead and Buried, Dead Alive, Re-Animator, The Blind Dead Trilogy, and Shockwaves are all among the many films regularly argued to be among the best of the category. Yet I find that the most fascinating component of the subgenre is the various devices by which people transform into the walking dead in each of these films. Is it the result of an ancient curse, a sinister plot, an aforementioned virus, weather conditions, or planetary alignment? The filmmakers themselves express a lot about their perceptions and values by the methods by which they turn their hapless performers into zombies.

Last night M. and I watched Jorge Grau's Let the Sleeping Corpses Lie (1975). Grau was obviously concerned with ecological issues long before "going green" became a fashion trend. In his tale of re-animation, a piece of agricultural machinery is to blame. Somewhere in the pastoral English countryside, a farmer has agreed to test a new technology. Radioactive waves are being emitted to tweak the nervous systems of insect pests, so that they attack and kill each other. Unfortunately the wide-ranging effects of the equipment have been underestimated. Beneath the shock and violence of the film, Grau is asking if humanity isn't constantly creating new problems for itself. If the end of the movie is any indicator, the director is pessimistic about our chances of recovery and/or restraint.

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